Hiking Boots or High Heels?

When I first left New Zealand in May last year, I had my mind set on starting a blog to document my travels. However the blog was sidelined as life got busy, and as more time passed I gave up on the idea. Recently though, I have been reflecting on my past year and wanted to start writing down some of my thoughts…so here goes!

I spent my time from May last year until April this year volunteering as a hiking guide for Quetzaltrekkers in Guatemala, a little bit of travel in Mexico and the U.S., working as a mountain bike guide for Colombia Bike Junkies in San Gil, Colombia and travelling in Peru. I am going to write about each of these experiences in more detail, however for this post I want to focus on how my initial short-term travel life has become my current lifestyle. Originally when I left home last year all I knew was that I was going to travel through parts Central and South America, and that I needed to be in Canada by May to start my working holiday visa.

When I first decided to volunteer as a hiking guide for Quetzaltrekkers my main goals were to give back to the local community, learn about the Guatemalan culture, and explore the outdoors, all of which I definitely managed to do. I thought it would be a temporary lifestyle, a good way to stay in one place for a few months but not something that I would do long term. However one year on and I am still working as a guide, and spending as much time as I can in the outdoors, with nothing more than the next few months planned out.

At Quetzaltrekers I was a volunteer and in Colombia I earned enough to get by but in my head Canada was the place where I was going to get a “real” job, start earning money and settle down for a bit. However eventually my love for the outdoors won and by the end of my year in Latin America I knew that having a work lifestyle that involved exploring the outdoors was, at least for the time being, the most important thing to me. That is how I found myself accepting a job in the adventure travel industry, rather than the corporate world, upon my move to Canada. I arrived in Canada in May and I am currently working as a trip leader for two week trips that start and finish in Vancouver, and go through the Rocky Mountain national parks of Canada. I get to see some amazing places and do some pretty cool activities so it is a great way to explore Canada and earn money at the same time.

People are usually very surprised to found out I studied law and worked as a corporate lawyer before I went travelling. These days I spend much more time in my exercise gear and hiking boots, and I think people find it very hard to imagine me wearing a suit and high heels. I often get asked if I’ll go back to being a lawyer one day, as if there is only one way to be a lawyer (wearing a suit, working in an office and making lots of money) which exists in a completely different world to the adventure travel industry. My answer is usually that although I don’t see myself returning to the high-heeled corporate world, I definitely would like to incorporate law into an adventure travel job one day. However for now I am happy to be in the  outdoors, and hopefully one day I will figure out how to bring law and adventure travel together.

One thing that I have learnt over the past year is don’t be afraid to do what you love and to do it as much as you can. It is not always easy, and I am definitely not saying that I have a full proof plan to always just having fun doing what you love, at the end of the day we all have to make a living for ourselves somehow. However this philosophy has helped me understand the kind of person I am and what makes me happy. Apologies for the cheese but it’s good to get right down into the deep and meaningful sometimes right?

So that’s about where by thoughts are at, more to follow, but any of your thoughts or comments would be much appreciated.

Ciao for now!

Grace

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A Reminder to be Grateful for your Opportunities

In this blog post I want to talk about my experiences of the last few weeks living with my boyfriend’s family in a local neighbourhood in Santa Marta. My life here has made me think a lot about how different it is to the world that I come from, and how even though we are all created equal, the life into which we are born has a major bearing on the opportunities that will be available to us in our future.

Most people (tourists) know Santa Marta as a small city on the Caribbean coast of Colombia which is a launching pad to travel to more touristy destinations such as Minca, Tayrona National Park, Palomino and hike to the Lost City. For me I suppose it is this because I have played tourist and done all these things, however it is also a place where I have started to really understand what it means to grow up in a less-privileged world to the world I grew up in.

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A view down the street around the corner – the yellow tap is blocking off a big hole in the ground created by all the rain…not something you’d want to get your motorbike stuck in!

I always knew that I was lucky growing up and when I was a very idealistic, naive eleven year old I had this idea that I was going to save the world from poverty so everyone could be as lucky as I was. Fifteen years, and a few life and travel experiences later, I am a bit more realistic. However the inequality in the world is still something that motivates my travel choices, my desire to learn more about different countries and cultures, and to hopefully one day make a difference and leave my mark on the world.

During my travels I have visited numerous developing countries, visited various poor, local families in their homes, and taught English to and volunteered as a hiking guide for underprivileged children. Throughout all of these experiences I felt compassion and a desire to help the people I met, however looking back I realise I was never really close enough to truly understand what their lives were like. I am not saying that now I have a full understanding of what it is like to live week to week on a meagre salary and look after a family at the same time, I am well aware that I could hop on a plane and leave tomorrow if I really wanted to, but I feel like I am starting to understand a bit more.

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Quickest way to beat the traffic.

In the world where I come from it is normal to have a holiday house, normal to own multiple cars in one family, normal to do lots extra-curricular activities at school, normal to have a swimming pool in your backyard and normal to have an overseas holiday as a child. Where I am now, having even one of those things would be unheard of. Where I am now people rent their houses, maybe own a motorbike but almost never a car, perhaps play football (because who doesn’t in South America), definitely no swimming pools in sight and most people have not left Colombia.

I don’t want to paint a picture of an extremely impoverished, unhappy place because people here still have the means to make a living and there are a lot of smiles and laughter. I also recognise that the two different worlds I have described above could both be found where I come from in Auckland, New Zealand. Every city is home to rich and poor, you don’t have to travel overseas to experience inequality, but sometimes you have to travel overseas and be immersed in a different culture away from your home comforts to fully appreciate it. You need to be close those people to fully appreciate it too.

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One of the three local tiendas, you won’t find much that costs more than $5.00 (10,000 Colombian pesos)

I am currently in a neighbourhood called El Pantano which is made up of mainly dirt streets and single-story buildings. There are of course, like almost everywhere in Colombia, about three tiendas (the equivalent of your local dairy in NZ) all within three minutes walking distance, all selling the same products. Local vendors walk or drive a horse and cart through the roads each day, with a microphone to let people know they are on their way and what they are selling. “Aguacates, aguacates, aguacates,” “Papaya, bananos, limones…papaya, bananos, limones”. Needless to say I have been eating lots of delicious fresh fruit and avocadoes! There is a dirt football patch with a couple of goals for kids to play football. I also discovered the other day, in the shower of all places, that there is an Evangelical church nearby because I could hear from the bathroom the priest and his rather aggressive, or maybe it was supposed to be enthusiastic, preaching through the microphone. From Pantana you can also walk half an hour to the shopping mall which has lovely air conditioning, clothing stores, a movie theatre, food court and just like that you feel like you’re in a different world. If I closed my eyes I could almost be back in 277, Newmarket, shopping bag in hand, lining up for my Tank juice…maybe not but it is not far off.

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Inside the local tienda – so many colourful options to choose from!

The kids here go to school, and people have jobs, or at least some way to make a living, and it is not uncommon to go to university. However for a lot of people there is very little opportunity to build a career, or to have much choice about where they live. From what I have seen, I think that two of the primary issues resulting in this lack of opportunity are poor English education in school and Colombia’s weak currency. Children in Colombia learn basic English, I have been practising colours and numbers with the kids I am living with. However once they leave school it is very difficult and there is not much incentive to keep practising, unless they are lucky enough to go to university overseas, or have a good job in the tourism industry. Without a good grasp of English it is difficult to travel outside Spanish speaking countries, let alone find a job and live in these countries. The other issue is that Colombia’s currency is very weak, and consequently the minimum monthly wage here might just cover two weeks rent for a room in a flat in Auckland with nothing left for extras. This means that sometimes it is hard to meet all costs for the month, and it is even harder to save a decent amount of money. Even if you do save what might be considered a decent amount of money in Colombia, it might only pay for your flights and a few weeks travel before you’d be looking for a job again.

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Running free at Cabo Tortuga.

Despite my different background and marginal Spanish, I have been welcomed with open arms by the family I am living with and treated as part of the family. It is really lovely to have a home away from home, where you can cook together, relax and have a place to unpack the seemingly ever-increasing contents of my backpack! We all went to the beach the other day which was the first time I had been out with the whole family. Santa Marta has plenty of beautiful beaches within a short drive of the city centre and we chose one called Cabo Tortuga, which is home to a few high rise buildings, but if you walk for ten minutes you can easily find a private spot without so many people around. It was really nice to be at the beach with the kids, playing with them in the sea and building sandcastles. A day at the beach can be very therapeutic, putting yourself at the mercy of the sand, sea and sun, forgetting your problems and just enjoying the present moment. At this moment, we really were all equals, spending the day at the beach, laughing at the same things and sharing the same experience.

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Sandcastle building success!

What the last few weeks have really reiterated to me is that the world is a very diverse place, life can be a bit unfair, but most people are inherently good and just want to enjoy the life they have as much as they can. We don’t choose what lives we are born into, we just have to make the most of what we have and try to help in some way those who are not as privileged as we are. I know that sounds cheesy but if you think about your own problems too much, you’ll never escape them. There will always be people better off in life than you are, but there will also always be people worse off, and you will be so much nicer to yourself if you choose to look on the positive side and appreciate the things you have, rather than the things you don’t have.

I hope this has given you some insight into the life of a local in Santa Marta and that you for a moment you have been transported to a different world than wherever you are reading from.

Love Grace.

Life of a Trip Leader: Summer in Canada

If you had told me in June last year that I would still be working as a guide one year later, I am not sure I would have believed you. When I started guiding in Guatemala last year I thought it would be very short term, just a way to have a change of scenery and live an outdoors lifestyle. But in June this year I found myself back in the routine of a pre-trip meeting and introductions with a new group embarking on an adventure together.

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Beautiful reflections on Bow Lake, Banff National Park

I had told myself in Colombia that I wanted a break from guiding, and to start using my brain a bit more. However the problem was I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I did know that I did not feel like I was ready to go into an office job, and I had heard too much about Canada’s outdoors to confine myself to a big city. I ended up focusing my search on seasonal summer jobs where I could work in an outdoor environment, at least some of the time. Turns out these jobs are not very well paid, nor did they provide a lot of variety. So when I came across a job to be a trip leader and guide two week tours through the Rocky Mountains I felt like I should at least apply, however I wasn’t really that confident because I am not Canadian. Could I really apply for a job to guide people around Canada when I had never even been there myself? Turns out I could. Luckily for me the company was new and in need of guides so after a Skype interview I was locked in to at least four trips for the summer.

 

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Look it’s Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer!…or more commonly known as an Elk, Jasper National Park.

The trip I guided was called the British Columbia & Rockies Spectacular. It was 14 nights, starting and finishing in Vancouver, with 7 nights camping, 1 night on a houseboat, and 6 nights in hotels. On the way to the Rockies we went white-water rafting on the Thompson River and stayed on a houseboat on Shuswap Lake, known as the hours boating capital of Canada. In the Rockies we had three nights camping in Lake Louise, two nights in a hotel in Banff and two nights camping in Jasper. Our last night camping was a canoe trip to our campsite on Clearwater Lake, after which we stayed at a horse ranch for the night before finishing the tour with two nights in Whistler. It was a great way to see some truly beautiful places and it also provided a lot of variety, I never got bored of the itinerary, and every trip was so different.

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White-water rafting the Thompson River, semi-arid climate and it was probably about 40 degrees celsius on this day!

The company, West Adventures, only started last year so it was still very new and consequently there were a few teething issues. However it was a very good learning experience for me to see from the inside what it takes to start a tour company, things to think about and having to solve some of the issues myself. It was also nice being part of a smaller, less established business because I had a bit more freedom to put my own spin on each tour. Although there were certain compulsory places and activities on the itinerary, there was also a lot of free time and flexibility to run each day how we wanted to. For example taking breakfast up to Moraine Lake to watch the sunrise over the lake, or writing our own trivia night to provide a bit of friendly competition for the guests.

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Breakfast at Moraine Lake, Banff National Park

We had a vehicle for each tour that transported us for the whole 15 days with everyone’s luggage and camping gear. For bigger groups we had a 20 seater bus, and 10 or 15 seater vans for smaller groups. It was almost always a bit of a squeeze to fit in all the camping gear, food and everyone’s luggage. I became a great Tetris packer, always consolidating and placing everything just right so that it could all fit in. Of course it also depended on how our guests packed…it definitely amused me to watch some people wheeling their gigantic suitcases into their tent (apologies to those reading this who did that!)

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Lake Louise campground set-up and the West Adventures 20 seater bus in the background.

The camping component of the trip probably provided the biggest challenges, but also some of the best nights and group bonding. I hadn’t actually done a huge amount of camping before, again something that you would think a trip leader for a tour that involved camping would be well practised at. However I had done a bit hiking in Guatemala and Peru, and knew enough about cooking to put together a good meal. We approached camping as a group exercise where everyone contributed by setting up their tent and helping in the kitchen…I would have struggled a lot more if I had to set up camp and cook for everyone! I also always worked with another guide/driver who knew what to do and helped out a lot too.

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S’mores time!

The campsites we went to in Canada were all very established, not like just plonking your tent on a flat patch of land and going pee behind a bush like I’d done in Latin America. All campsites, bar the canoe trip, had a check-in station (please laugh away all those who laughed at me when you heard me say it in my lovely kiwi accent), built gravel campsites with very clear boundaries, a picnic table, fire pit, bathrooms and running water. The canoe trip was “wilderness camping” because you had to canoe there but there was still a long drop toilet, set spaces for tents, a covered picnic table and perfectly good drinking water from the lake so it didn’t feel like too much of a hardship! Camping is a great group bonding experience, with everyone setting up camp, cooking a meal and hanging out around a campfire making s’mores together. It is was also one of the parts of the trip that tended to push some people out of their comfort zones and I enjoyed the challenge to try and make sure these people enjoyed camping and had a positive experience…even if it did get down to 0⁰C some nights!

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Ready to canoe back from our campsite on Clearwater Lake, Wells Gray National Park

My guiding time in Canada reminded me how much people can surprise me, in both good and bad ways. I had a huge range of guests on my tours, from a 78 year old ex-mountain climber, to a 19 year old on her first solo travelling trip. It is always interesting to meet and talk to people from different walks of life, and spending two weeks together meant I always had time to get to know everyone.

 

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On the way up Bald Hills, Jasper National Park

A lot of people had not spent much time in the outdoors, or at least in the mountains, so some of the activities were completely new experiences for them. It is great to go on a hike which is a real challenge for someone to complete, encourage them to climb to the top of the hill for a view that is always worth the hike, and see the look of satisfaction and pride they get when they finish. Other people were nervous to go white-water rafting, or horse riding, and again it was really cool to see them overcome this fear and come back from the activity with a smile on their face.

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Well deserved view of Maligne Lake and the Rocky Mountains from the top of Bald Hills.

Canada is extremely beautiful and it is very easy to see why it has become such a popular place to travel. Amazing rivers, waterfalls, canyons, glacial blue lakes and dramatic mountain ranges. We encountered such different landscapes and weather during our trip, from a canyon in a semi-arid desert and 40⁰C temperatures, to glacial lakes and snowy mountains with temperatures dropping to 0⁰C overnight. We even woke up to a winter wonderland view of fresh snow one morning, which was very unusual for September and I am very glad that was a hotel not a camping night!

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Fresh snow fall, 108 Mile Ranch, September…not the norm from what we were told!

It was also very interesting to learn about Canada’s history including the arrival of the gold miners in the late 1850s, building the trans-Canadian railway in the late 1800s and the first explorers in the Rocky Mountains. I felt it was important to imagine all these people making their way on foot, horse or raft through such extreme, rough landscape over 100 years ago, whilst we can now enjoy looking out the window as our vehicles travel on smooth paved highways. They must have been extremely brave to embark on a journey through rivers and mountains without knowing what was going to be waiting for them when, or if, they made it to their final destination.

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Lake Agnes, Banff National Park: 1h 30min hike from Lake Louise, a tea-house was built here in the early 1900s to encourage hikers to visit and it is now crawling with tourists on a summer day at Lake Louise.

Wildlife was also a big component of our trips, and again something a bit foreign to me as a New Zealander where you are lucky to see anything more than birds, insects, sheep and cows on your standard road trip! Canada on the other hand has some pretty unique wildlife including bears, moose and elk as well as countless deer, chipmunks and squirrels.

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A hungry little chipmunk…they are definitely not shy!

The tricky thing with wildlife is that it is very unpredictable. People would always ask me when we were going to see wildlife, and although there were some spots where it was more likely to spot wildlife, it wasn’t like we could call ahead to the mother bear and her cubs and ask if she wouldn’t mind coming down to graze by the side of the road for a few minutes while we drove past. Nevertheless we did manage to see something on every trip, almost always black bears and elk.

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The one time a mother bear did grace us with the presence of herself and her cub.

I was lucky enough to see two moose, on two separate occasions. The first was a baby just grazing on the side of the road, and the other a fully grown male walking across a plain and then across the road in front of us as we drove around the corner to get a better view. It is very special to see wildlife in its natural habit, usually relaxing and eating, without much regard for the line-up of cars and the countless tourists snapping photos of it. Luckily for me I did not have any scary wildlife encounters on foot, the only time I saw anything other than deer and chipmunks on foot was going for a run one morning and I heard a loud rustle from the bush next to me. When I turned to see what it was I saw a small black bear running away up the hill, and needless to say I picked up my pace a bit and kept running in the opposite direction!

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Baby moose crossing the road on the way up to Moraine Lake.

I ended up working five trips throughout the summer, finishing up a few weeks ago in mid-September. Life on the road was fun, busy and exhausting all at the same time, but I always had a different group of people around me to keep me on my toes and make me smile. I was very lucky to experience some incredible places five different times, which for many people are a once in a lifetime visit. And of course I worked with and met some amazing people, and it is the people who always enhance your travel experiences and who you have your best memories with.

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Peyto Lake, Banff National Park – one of my favourite viewpoints of the trip.

I am now back in Colombia, looking for work somewhere in South America for a few months, before hopefully returning to Canada next summer. I still feel like I want a job where I can use my brain a bit more, but that is a bit tricky being in a country where I am not fluent in the language, so I might stick to the tourism industry for now! And I’ll keep writing when I can, because that at least gives my brain a bit of exercise.

Until next time

Grace

Me hiking down from Bald hills

Mountain Biking in Colombia – What happens when you ditch the skinny tyres…

After my time at Quetzaltrekkers and a few weeks of travel I was ready to look for another place to settle for a few months. I had wanted to go to Colombia for a long time so I started to use Workaway to search for work or volunteer positions there. I still wanted to do something in the outdoors and being a cyclist I love to explore by bike so that was how I narrowed my search. I found a position open for a mountain bike guide with Colombia Bike Junkies (CBJ) in San Gil, Colombia. A couple of people had told me about San Gil being a really cool spot for adventure tourism, and a quick look on CBJ’s website had me convinced it looked like a pretty cool place to be so I booked my flights and arrived in San Gil at the start of December last year.

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Our trusty truck with a view of the countryside surrounding San Gil in the background.

My biking background is almost all road cycling. I competed in road cycling at school and went on to do triathlons in the last few years before I left. Its fair to say I am pretty confident on a bike, I’ve covered my fair share of kilometres, but downhill mountain biking opened up my eyes to a whole new world. When I applied for the position I hadn’t actually done a lot of mountain biking, but I thought if a whole lot of tourists could do these tours, how hard could it be? Turns out it was a bit harder than I thought. I have never been a huge fan of riding downhill, I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to feeling out of control, but a downhill mountain bike guide shouldn’t really be scared of going downhill so I had to get over my fears, or at least pretend to for the time being.

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Learning to tackle the single track.

We ran two tours whilst I was there: Chicamocha and Suarez, the two biggest canyons in the area. In the morning we rode from the top of the canyons right down into the bottom, usually about 1,200m vertical descent. It was mainly gravel roads with lots of sharp corners and a few single track sections. You have to tell yourself to trust the bike and that its okay to skid a little bit…but not a very nice feeling for someone who is used to smooth paved roads! Single track was a whole different story. The single tracks in Colombia are not purpose built mountain bike tracks, they are old Camino Reals (royal walkways) built by the Spanish colonisers, or they are simply pathways that people used to use (or still use) to walk between villages. This means there’s lots of good rocks and bumps to try to navigate without going over the top of your handlebars. I had to learn that it was okay to put my seat all the way down (again very weird for a road cyclist) and not pedal, just try to not brake so much that I came to a near stop which I was often tempted to do where it got really steep or bumpy!

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View from the top of the Chicamocha canyon. 

My favourite parts of the tours were the cross country sections where there was a mixture downhill and uphill, with enough uphill to give you a good workout and enough downhill to have a bit of fun. I think I like getting my adrenaline kick from working hard, rather than throwing myself down a steep single track. All the boys I worked with disagreed with me, why go uphill if you don’t need to, downhill is way better, faster, crazier and generally more fun…well as my mother always says “each to their own”.

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Showing off some skills.

The funny thing was the other boys that I worked with, the mechanic and the driver, were far better mountain bike riders than I was, but the company needed someone who could speak English with the tourists who came on the trips, so I was generally the main guide. Sometimes both came along and one of them would ride too, which was nice if I felt like going a bit slower at the back, or occasionally trying to keep up with them at the front! They encouraged me to not brake so much…”no frenos Grace” and definitely improved my Spanish because neither of them spoke very much English so we had a lot of Spanglish conversations with me using my Spanish Dict app to quickly translate something I didn’t understand or search a word I wanted to say.

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Lunch in the village of Galan.

During the tours we passed through some really cute colonial towns which all looked nearly exactly the same: a main square with nice manicured little gardens, cobblestone streets, an old church, white houses with green paint around the base to conceal dirt when it rained, and a few locals lounging in the square wondering what a bunch of tourists and bikes are doing in their little town.

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The main square and church in the village of Jordan.

We had to travel some pretty rough roads to get to our biking routes so we had a pretty tough truck to match them. I felt a lot safer in that truck than I would in most other vehicles on that road, and I even got to have a lesson so that I could also learn to be a driver, although I never quite progressed from one lesson so I stuck to guiding. At the end of each tour we stopped at a local tienda (shop) with lovely plastic table and chairs to sit at and of course a good selection of local beers to choose from that cost about $1 each and went down a treat after a hot day on a bike.

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Cheers to the end of a good day.

Another thing that was new for me was having to wash the bikes after every time they were used. I used to wash my road bike once every couple of weeks if it was lucky, and it was always a chore that I put off until the clumps of grease on my chain were too big for me to pretend that they weren’t that bad. That was why after my first ride with the boys at CBJ I went to wheel my bike back to its spot inside but instead I was instructed to leave it outside so we could wash it first. Thus began a routine after each tour to wash all the bikes, after a day of riding down dusty dirt roads and tracks they get pretty dirty, and it isn’t the best look to present a client with a dirty bike. The worst day was when we got stuck in a downpour riding along clay road so that by the end of the afternoon the bikes covered in thick red brown dirt and we drove the rest of the way home, it took us about twice as long to wash them that night than usual.

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Attempting to make the bikes ride-able again after getting stuck in the mud…

My time at CBJ definitely inspired me to do more mountain biking. You can definitely go on more adventurous routes, still get some good exercise in, and it’s a bit more exciting than always riding on the road. Maybe the next bike I buy will have fatter tires and suspension to carry me along the trails. Inspired though I may be, I’m still not quite ready to throw myself down the most technical, steep tracks I can find. For now I’ll leave that to the pros, or those who have that weird adrenaline junkie chemical in their head!

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The Colombia Bike Junkies crew, February 2018.

Is the grass greener “off the beaten track”?

“Getting off the beaten track” is something I have thought a lot about during my travels. I like to think I’m more of an adventurous, intrepid traveller who goes to places and does activities that most other tourists don’t do. I always thought it was nicer to experience a place without thousands of other tourists around, you usually feel like you have a more authentic experience. However I have also started to appreciate that popular places are popular for a reason, the fact that everyone knows about them is usually testament to their beauty, awesomeness, history and culture.

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Icefields Skybridge, Jasper National Park

I think as the world has become more globalised and it is now comparatively cheaper and more accessible to travel, the idea of “getting off the beaten track” has grown. Famous attractions that are overrun with tourists have become less desirable and people are searching for ways to “get off the beaten track”.

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Climbing Tajumulco volcano, Guatemala

My first time really experiencing this was when I travelled to Vietnam in 2013, it was my first time travelling solo, i.e without Mum and Dad there to pay for everything and make all the decisions. I decided to spend the first four weeks of my trip teaching English in Ho Chi Minh and then the last two weeks travelling up Vietnam to fly home from Hanoi. Teaching English was great because I lived in a house with the other volunteers and really felt at home in Ho Chi Minh after four weeks there. I was, off the beaten track, so to say, seeing parts of Ho Chi Minh that most tourists didn’t see and interacting with local children and families. However when I made my way up to Hanoi I discovered the tourist trail. I had never experienced meeting so many people all going to the same places as I was, to stay in the same hostels and do the same activities. It was a nice way to meet people, especially travelling alone, but it made me realise how much of a market there is to create a tourist experience that can sustain large numbers of people at a time in order to maximise profits.

I think the essence of tourism is finding a place or experience that is unique in some way, and sharing it with other people who pass on their recommendation so that slowly the word is spread to make the place or experience a tourist attraction. It might be that a mountaineer discovered a trail that lead to an amazing summit, or lake, or waterfall, and went back and told all his friends they should visit it. Or perhaps some crazy thrill seeker, like AJ Hackett (the man who invented the bungy jump) was pushing as many boundaries as he could, and when he managed to create an experience that was safe and secure, others decided that they wouldn’t mind being thrill seekers too. Or maybe a terrible event happened in history, and people want to share information about that event to create awareness and stop it happening again. With all of these examples there is a sense of excitement and novelty at seeing a new place, taking part in a new experience, or learning about something which people did not know much about before. However the more people that visit the tourist attraction, the more this sense of excitement and novelty wears off, and sometimes it can be hard to experience what originally drew people to that attraction in the first place.

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Peyto Lake viewpoint – discovered by famous Canadian explorer Bill Peyto

But at what point do you limit the number of tourists at a tourist attraction in order to retain authenticity? In addition to novelty and excitement, accessibility and non-discrimination are also important values to the tourism industry. Why should only the experienced, incredibly fit mountaineers be the only ones to experience this beautiful lake, should the rest of the world not be able to see and experience this wonder too? And then, just like any other industry, people want to be successful, make money and develop a good reputation so of course they want to have lots of visitors to boost their business and spread the word for them.

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Glacier walk experience on the Athabasca Glacier, Jasper National Park

Sometimes I think it must have been amazing to be an explorer in the 1800s when so much of the world was still undiscovered. Back then, almost every place was new and every experience was novel. Travel was so much harder and took such a long time that it was only the really adventurous who travelled. And I suppose over in Europe people might visit the Eiffel Tower in Paris, or the Colosseum in Rome but I can’t imagine there were the numbers or crowds that you might experience now. Today we are lucky to live in a globalised world where we could buy a flight to almost anywhere in the world if we really wanted to (and we had an unlimited budget…!). But this means it is much easier for people to travel and therefore there are larger crowds at popular tourists spots and people are starting to search for something different, because even though they want to tick Macchu Picchu off the bucket list, is it really worth battling the crowds?

Macchu Picchu is an interesting example. I visited in March this year and have slightly mixed emotions about it. Of course it was incredible to see an ancient Incan city, be able to walk around it and learn about how people used to live there. But there were so many people there that it did not feel as special as it might have one hundred, fifty, or even ten, years ago. I used to think that you had to hike to get to Macchu Picchu, I’d heard about the Inca Trail and the alternatives such as the Salkantay, but what I didn’t realise is that if you want to, you can get a train or bus all the way from Cusco to Aguas Calientes (the town at the base of Macchu Picchu) and then take a bus from Aguas Calientes up to the front gate of Macchu Picchu, you don’t have to hike at all. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that Macchu Picchu has been made accessible for everyone, but part of me thinks you should only be able to take the bus up there if you are injured or old…a little bit like handicap parking! After all, the Incans all had to walk up and down the mountains so why shouldn’t we?

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View of Macchu Picchu (plus a few other tourists!)

I had a really interesting discussion about it with a friend I met in Peru. We ended up spending about a week together and before we parted ways she was trying to decide whether to go south and do the Cusco/Macchu Picchu thing, or whether to continue north up to Ecuador. We talked about how we felt like we couldn’t come to Peru and not go to Macchu Picchu, there is such a stigma around it that if you went home and told people you were in Peru but didn’t go to Macchu Picchu they would think you were crazy, but they probably don’t know how much other amazing stuff there is to do in Peru. She eventually decided to go to Macchu Picchu and was happy with her decision, but it definitely highlighted for me the difficulty when you travel of wanting to “get off the beaten track” but also experience the places and experiences that make your travel destination of choice famous.

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View of Choquequirao

I was lucky that a couple of friends had recommended a trek called Choquequirao to Macchu Picchu to me. The trek was nine days total, including the last day visiting Macchu Picchu and travelling back to Cusco. We started in a little village called Cachora and it took one and half days to get to the base camp of Choquequirao. Choquequirao is also an old Incan City that was actually discovered before Macchu Picchu, but because it is much harder to access uncovering and restoring it has taken much longer, and to date only 30% of it has been uncovered. I was in a group with only two other hikers and one guide. The first afternoon that we walked up to explore Choquequirao I think there were one or two other groups there, it felt like we had the whole place to ourselves and was so nice to be able to wander around without jostling other tourists. It really felt like you were walking through an abandoned ancient city. That is why for me Macchu Picchu was bigger and physically more impressive but the experience was not as special because I was one of thousands of other people there.

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Exploring the Choquequirao ruins

I know I sound spoilt, and it’s true, I am. I have seen some amazing things and visited some incredible places where very few other tourists visit, so when I go to a place overrun with other tourists I need to remind myself to just appreciate the reasons that it is so popular and not get irritated by the crowds of people, if I get to go there why shouldn’t they too?

The thing with “getting off the beaten track” is that it usually takes more time and research. A lot of people only have a two week vacation and they want to see as much as they can in this time so often it is easier to follow the beaten track, tick off the most popular attractions and meet others along the way doing the same thing or do an organised group tour. I have been lucky enough when I have travelled to have lots of time. I have lived in places for one, two, three or four months, volunteering or working somewhere, so it starts to feel more like home rather than a tourist destination. The longer you spend in a place, the more you explore, meet locals and appreciate the things that make that place unique, even if they might not be attractive to tourists on first sight. You just need to be willing to do some research, take your time and be flexible because you never know who you might meet.

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Horseshoe Lake, Jasper National Park

So how do I conclude? Well it’s hard because I know how I like to travel, but I know that everyone wants to get something different out of their travel experience, so how I feel is not necessarily how everyone feels. The best way to think about it for me is that no matter which way you travel, you are travelling on the “track”. Some people might be on the wide, smooth, paved end, whilst some are on the single trail with knarly roots and bumps, and others somewhere in between. When you want to “get off the beaten track” you go more towards the knarly end, but you are still on a trail that someone has travelled along before you…unless you are Sir Edmund Hillary conquering Everest for the first time but most of us probably don’t quite fit into that level of adventurous!

So no matter what you do, whether you choose the “paved road” or you “get off the beaten track”, just make sure you appreciate where you are, soak it all up and in my experience you won’t regret it.

Grace

Trust Me, I’m a QT Guide

When I was planning my trip last year I had decided I wanted to go to Latin America, but I knew how big it was and I am definitely not the kind of traveller to try and conquer a whole continent in a few months. I also wanted to volunteer somewhere. From my previous travel experiences I liked the satisfaction of volunteering, but more importantly I found it a much better way to learn about the local culture, meet local people and to feel like I had really lived and experienced a place, rather than just passing through.

With this in mind I began to scour the internet for volunteer opportunities in Central or South America. I knew that it would be easy to teach English somewhere, but I wanted to do something a bit different. I discovered Quetzaltrekkers on a website that listed a variety of volunteer positions in Central and South America. As I followed the link to the Quetzaltrekkers website I learned that it operated using volunteer hiking guides, who other than being relatively fit and committing to at least three months at a time, did not need to have any other qualifications. I wondered if it be too good to be true, but I sent off an application form anyway and after a few emails and quick chat over Skype I was all set to start mid-June 2017.

Quetzaltrekkers is a non profit organisation but it works very differently to other non profits that I have came across, which is one of the reasons I loved it so much. Quetzaltrekkers history dates back to 1995, just before the end of Guatemala’s civil war, when two tourists discovered a local man with a classroom set up on the street to teach children who did not have a school to go to in Xela (Mayan name) or Quetzaltenango (Spanish name). Xela is Guatemala’s second largest city but it is not much of a tourist destination so most people have not heard of it. It is however surrounded by some amazing volcanoes and highlands, making it a pretty cool place to hike. The tourists wanted to help these children and after a year or so of running a restaurant which was not hugely successful, it was decided that guiding hikes for other tourists would be a good way to raise money for the children, and so the basis for Quetzaltrekkers was born. Over twenty years on and Quetzaltrekkers is still using volunteers to guide hikes and all proceeds go towards two projects in Xela: Escuela de la Calle and Hogar Abierto.

Escuela de la Calle, which in English translates to School of the Street, is a school of approximately 175 children, from ages five to fifteen. I was very impressed when I visited it for the first time – it is a really beautiful school with lots of cool paintings on the walls, a nice playground, football/basketball court and a library with computers. Originally the school was fully funded by Quetzaltrekkers but now it has grown so big that it receives 20% of its funds from outside donations and Quetzaltrekkers funds the other 80%. All the teachers and staff are local people with the occasional volunteer from outside Guatemala.

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The second project is Hogar Abierto, which in English translates to Open Home. It is a home in Guatemala which houses around fifteen to twenty children who would not otherwise be able to live and go to school in Xela. Some of the children no longer have anywhere to call home, and others have families who live in the surrounding villages, but they will receive a much better education in the city. The Hogar is also run by local staff who look after and feed the children, all of whom attend, or previously attended, Escuela de la Calle. When I was there the children ranged from ages nine to sixteen, with the older children attending high school. The Hogar is 100% funded by Quetzaltrekkers and we were also lucky enough to have dinner with the children every Tuesday night, and play indoor football with them every Wednesday. Football usually involved the boys controlling the game and us guides running round the field, and very occasionally coming into contact with the ball if we were lucky enough…or I counted myself lucky if the ball didn’t come near me.

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Quetzaltrekkers itself is an organisation that is based in Xela and offers numerous guided hikes, both single and multi-day, in the surrounding area. As previously mentioned all the guides are volunteers, usually other travellers who for some reason or another wanted to spend a few months hiking in the Guatemalan mountains nearly everyday. For this reason we ended up with an amazing group of like minded individuals and I made friends for life from all over the world. As well as guiding the hikes, we also did all the preparation for the hikes and office work. This included managing all the bookings, cash finances, social media marketing, emails, shopping for supplies and equipment maintenance.

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The hikes were awesome and we offered four different hikes while I was there: Santa Maria volcano (day hike), Tajumulco volcano (overnight hike), Xela to Lago Atitlan (three days) and Nebaj to Todos Santos (six days). Each of them really deserves its own blog post but I’ll try and give a quick overview.

Santa Maria, which stands at 3,770m tall, involved a climb of 1,200m elevation gain (Xela is at 2,400-2,500m above sea level) which was pretty tough and usually took 3-4 hours. However it was always well worth it with a 360 degree view from the top of the volcanoes on Lago Atitlan’s shoreline to the South, the hazy line of the pacific coast to the West, Tajumulco Volcano to the North and the city of Xela to the East. There’s nothing like challenging yourself on a hard climb and the feeling of accomplishment you get at the top…I’d say it’s the best high out there that’s free and good for you! We had the classic Quetzaltrekkers breakfast at the top – hot drinks, oats, granola, homemade peanut butter and jam, and cookies baked for us by the Hogar Abierto kids. If you don’t already put peanut butter in your oats you should start, it was life changing for most of us.

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Tajumulco is the highest volcano in Central America at 4,220m however it often gets left in the wake of Acatenango, the volcano that people hike in Guatemala to watch Fuego erupt from. After a three hour chicken bus ride, we hiked up to base camp where we stayed overnight. Unfortunately I was there in the rainy season so it was often a race to set up camp and lunch before the afternoon rain came, and even if we got everything set up, it all ended up getting wet anyway! It was also freezing. Once we finished hiking I would put on two thermals, two fleeces and my down jacket and still be cold! The hardest part was maybe prising ourselves out of our sleeping bags at 3.30am. Our summit hike started at 4.00am and took an hour to an hour and a half, so that we would reach the top in time for first light and then enjoy the sunrise. Despite the cold, it was always worth it, again the high of a hard climb with an amazing sunrise from the top of Central America to go with it was an incredible way to start the day. The hike back down was always much more enjoyable with the hard part done, the sunshine out and the promise of a roof over your head that night.

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Xela to Lago Atitlan was our most popular hike. The hike finished at Lago Atitlan which was a popular tourist destination and we offered a bag drop service for client’s extra luggage so they could hike to the lake as the next destination on their travels. On the hike we passed through some of the highlands of Guatemala, lots of agricultural area and local villages. I never thought corn fields could be so beautiful until this hike. If there’s one thing the Guatemalans know how to do, it is grow a lot of corn. We even had a hill on the hike called the cornfield of death in honour of it being up a steep cornfield at the end of day two and even though no one actually died, it did offer a great location for a horror movie. We might laugh but corn is the staple crop of the Northwestern highlands of Guatemala – it is used to make corn tortillas, and tamales (made from a very similar dough to tortillas but they are steamed and wrapped in banana leaves). These tortillas and tamales are the basic diet of many Mayan families. On the two nights of the hike we stayed with local families who provided a home stay for us. This was really special because it would be otherwise near impossible to arrange to stay with a local family in the area we were travelling through.

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The last morning entailed another 3.30am wake up for a hike to a mirador (lookout/viewpoint) for sunrise. There is something pretty magical about seeing Lago Atitlan for the first time in the dark, after you have spent two days hiking there, and seeing six different volcanoes revealed as the sun rises over the lake. It was always a beautiful morning hiking all the way down to the lake and finishing with a jump in from a wharf attached to the lunch restaurant…a pretty awesome way to end a hike. However for the guides this was not quite the end of our adventure. We had a pick up driver who dropped off luggage for the clients at the lake and he was also our transport home to Xela. We piled all the gear clients had borrowed into the back of the pick up, strategically laying all the sleeping mats on the floor and keeping a couple of sleeping bags aside. We then followed suit and spent the next three hours lying on the floor of the pick up, while the driver went screeching around corners and we lay gossiping in the back, never about clients of course, but I will say that I had some great chats in the back of that pick up.

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Our last hike, and perhaps most special and unique, was Nebaj to Todos Santos. It was definitely the most remote, with a 4-5 hour bus ride required at either end. However this also meant it was extremely cultural and it had huge historic significance because it passed through some of the trails and towns that were the worst hit by Guatemala’s civil war (1960-1996). We stayed at local hotels on the first and last nights of the hike, and home stays with local families for the three nights we were on the trail. Each night we had a different family cook for us and offer us a temazcal. A temazcal is a traditional Mayan sauna, and so long as you are not expecting a five star sauna at the Hilton, it is delightful. Think a steamy stone hut, hot water heated on coals and cold water to cool you down…a great way to freshen up after a hard day hiking. The trail itself was extremely diverse passing through local countryside, climbing up to the Altiplanos (high plains), across rivers and on the last day we hiked up to Cerro Torre which at 3,895m is the highest non-volcanic point in Central America.

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Unlike all our other hikes, the Nebaj hike had a specifically trained lead guide. This was because it needed someone with good Spanish speaking ability to communicate with our host families. We had a very special relationship with the families that hosted us. The Nebaj hike has been running for about 20 years, and as mentioned above this was just at the end of Guatemala’s civil war. Therefore the families, and others in their villages, had just come out of a very tough time and without very much exposure to Westerners or tourism. Our groups are still the only tourists that travel through those trails, and we were always laughed or stared at by the local kids as we walked into a village with our big hiking packs, hiking boots and poles…we must have looked like a bit of a circus procession to them. However the locals that we stayed with and interacted with loved meeting us and talking to us, they were very welcoming and it was a true privilege to be let into their lives.

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When we weren’t out hiking we spent our time at the office, which as well as an actual office also had storage rooms for all our gear and food, and a kitchen and living area for us to spend time in. An office day usually started with a big shared breakfast (we bought most of our food using tip money and pooled this together into a fund called “The Breakfast Club”) and then could involve anything from emails, finances, prepping for hikes leaving the next day, shopping to re-stock supplies or checking the gear we lent out. We took numerous trips to the local market and supermarket, coming back with hiking packs full of supplies. It’s hard to explain how it came to be normal to walk through a city where it is obvious you are not a local, with a hiking pack on your back full of grocery shopping or laundry. However we loved it and all the locals were so friendly that it didn’t matter that we looked pretty silly. To top up our famous trail mix, we would walk to the market, buy around 45kg of different varieties of peanuts and fava beans, load up a couple of backpacks, hike back to the office and empty it all out into a huge storage bin when we got back to the office, trying not to eat too much in the process (it was seriously addictive). It was pretty cool being able to run the organisation as well as guiding the hikes and hanging out with your friends all day. I’ll pay someone good money if they find a job for me that was as a good as being a QT guide.

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I could probably keep writing forever but hopefully that gives you a pretty good idea of what Quetzaltrekkers was about. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made and I am so glad I came across it. I met some amazing people, did some incredible hikes, learnt some good lessons and it will always have a very special place in my heart.

If you have a few months and need a break from real life I would seriously recommend becoming a QT guide. Or if you are travelling through Guatemala be sure to look up Quetzaltrekkers, you won’t be disappointed.

Hasta luego!

Grace

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